EXACTLY a year after legal aid lawyers urged the Scottish Government to urgently review how fee rates are set, an expert panel is set to meet this Friday to begin the process of overhauling the payments system.

The 10-man, one-woman review group - which includes representatives from bodies such as the Law Society of Scotland, Faculty of Advocates and Scottish Legal Aid Board (SLAB) as well as Fraser of Allander Institute director Professor Graeme Roy and former University of Strathclyde economics professor Frank Stephen – was established after those working in the profession reacted with anger to the findings of a Government review that was published last February.

READ MORE: Review how legal aid fees are set with urgency, lawyers plead

Carried out by outgoing Carnegie UK Trust chief executive Martyn Evans, that report said that despite those working in the sector stressing that many legal aid fees had not risen in decades, “it proved impossible to find robust sources of persuasive evidence for a general increase in fees”.

Despite this, Mr Evans did recommend a “strictly evidence-based” review of how fees are set, which is what the panel unveiled by community safety minister Ash Denham last week has been tasked with completing.

Though she stressed that Scotland’s “legal aid system is one of the leading jurisdictions in Europe in terms of scope, eligibility and cost”, Ms Denham noted that creating a group to look at the way fees are set is “an important step towards modernising the system to ensure that it is fair to both the taxpayer and the provider, and is sustainable for the future”.

It is clear that an overhaul is long overdue, with SLAB chief executive Colin Lancaster noting that “many aspects of the current legal aid payment system still reflect that constructed 70 years ago to mirror traditional feeing models in the private sector”.

With the panel scheduled to meet periodically until the end of this year, though, it may be some time yet before the across-the-board fee increase of three per cent that was announced by Ms Denham in December and will take effect from next month is added to.

READ MORE: Fee reform continues to dominate the debate on legal aid

Despite this, for panel member and Law Society of Scotland criminal legal aid committee convenor Ian Moir, it is vital that the review group reaches agreement not just on a further rise to eliminate past stagnation but on a system to facilitate future increases too.

“What I’m looking to get, as quickly as possible, is a substantial rise in legal aid rates to mitigate against the austerity cuts from 10 years ago and all the other erosion of fees over the years,” he said. “Once we get that I’d hope to see in place a mechanism for annual or at least regular increases in fees based on one of a number of government drivers that exist for that kind of thing; something that means we don’t have to keep coming back to this. It really is vital that we get an increase in fees – it’s so long overdue that people are struggling to offer the service and that’s a real concern.”

Christine McLintock, convener of the Law Society’s public policy committee, agreed, noting that “ongoing periodic review is vital to ensure the sustainability of fees to maintain availability of legal advice for those who need it and encourage new entrants to the sector”.

Those working in the sector have long complained about the difficulties involved in attracting talent at the junior end, with law schools advising students to steer clear of publicly funded legal work while the low-pay, long-hours culture has also proved a turn off.

READ MORE: Edinburgh lawyers shun extradition work amid legal-aid fees protest

Over the past year those at the senior end have been cutting back on the amount of legal aid work they are willing to do, with Edinburgh Bar Association (EBA) last year leading a country-wide exodus from SLAB’s police station duty scheme, claiming that anti-social hours and low levels of pay made their membership untenable alongside their normal workload.

Since then, EBA’s members have continued to cut back on the number of duty rotas they are willing to serve on, withdrawing from SLAB’s Justice of the Peace court roster in September and in November giving up court appointments in summary cases where the accused is prohibited from carrying out their own defence. In January the small number of EBA firms that sat on SLAB’s extradition court duty scheme decided to withdraw, with the association’s full membership giving ongoing consideration to whether to give up duty work altogether.